Do you ever find yourself at the gym thinking “how much should I be lifting?”. Have you ever wondered what your deadlift starting weight should be? Or what a good bench press starting weight is? If these questions have ever crossed you head, then you have come to the right place! Today I will answering the common question- “how much weight should I lift?”
12 years years ago I began my weight lifting journey. I also was stumped with these questions. I also know how hard the learning curve can be!
This is why I want to provide you with a one-stop DEFINITIVE answer to this common question.
I will give you 10 simple tips, which when implemented, will give you the confidence to walk into the gym and know EXACTLY how much you should be lifting.
- Why You Should Determine “How Much Weight Should I Lift”?
- How Much Weight Should I Lift? (Pssss “It Varies!”)
- Two Methods To Determine “How Much Weight Should I Lift”
- 10 Tips To Determine “How Much Weight I Should Lift”
- 1). Have You Established Your Training Goal?
- 2). Don’t Underestimate The Warm Up!
- 3). Perfect Your Form And Technique!
- 4). Choosing A Starting Weight By Trial And Error
- 5). Choosing A Starting Weight By 1 Rep Max
- 6). Optimise Your Weight Load For Each Workout!
- 7). Progressive Overload!
- 8). How Much Should I Lift For My Weight? (Relative Strength)
- 9). Are You Keeping Training Records?
- 10). Realise When You Are Lifting Too Heavy!
Why You Should Determine “How Much Weight Should I Lift”?
Consider two imaginary gym-goers, Jason and Leon.
Both Jason and Leon have just purchased their one year gym membership.
Both are relatively new to weightlifting.
Both would also like to gain a some lean muscle mass for beach season this summer.
Jason is a hypochondriac who values his health. Getting injured whilst trying to lift a weight too large is the last thing Jason wants to do.
Therefore Jason decides to do light weights with high repetitions.
On the other hand, Leon wants to build muscle as fast as possible. Leon is sightly more nonchalant about his personal health and safety. He also heard that lifting heavy weights is best to gain muscle quickly.
Therefore Leon decides to push heavy weights with low repetitions.
Maximise Your Training Results (Safely!)
Come beach season, neither Jason nor Leon have achieved the results they were hoping for.
Jason stuck to his training, yet hasn’t built any muscle. And Leon injured himself whilst lifting a weight too big. As a result of his injury, Leon lost all training motivation.
Imaginary as they are, the story of Jason and Leon stresses the importance of optimising how much weight to lift at the gym.
You want a weight that will provide training results, but not so heavy that you become injured.
You also want to lift a weight that is considered good for your size.
So what’s the ideal weight?
How Much Weight Should I Lift? (Pssss “It Varies!”)
Many people who start training think there is an average benchmark that applies to all. In other words, they want someone to tell them:
“Everyone should be able to lift 60Kg on a benchpress”
This couldn’t be further from the truth!
In fact, how much weight you should be lifting will depend on many factors, including:
- Natural athletic ability.
- Previous training history.
- Lifting exercise performed.
This makes it essential for you to determine your own optimal intensity. In other words, determine how much weight YOU PERSONALLY should be lifting.
So how do you determine how much weight you should be lifting?
Two Methods To Determine “How Much Weight Should I Lift”
Two methods can be used to determine your ideal starting weight:
- Trial and error.
- 1 rep max.
“Do what you can with all you have, wherever you are.”Theodore Roosevelt
Trial and error involves trying different weight loads until you find a suitable weight to use for training repetitions.
This is the safer of the two options. but it can also be slow and cumbersome because it involves a lot of testing.
A one rep max refers to the maximum amount of weight you can push in one go for any particular exercise.
Your 1 rep max figure will allow you to calculate how much you should be lifting during your training repetitions. This method will allow you to quickly determine how much weight you should be lifting, but it is also much more technical.
Should you choose the trial and error method or 1 rep max method?
This will depend on your weight lifting experience and access to a training partner.
The trial and error method is suitable for beginners and those training solo.
The 1 rep max method is more suitable for advanced lifters who have a training partner or a personal trainer.
But the takeaway message is that both methods will allow you to figure out your starting weight.
Keep reading to find out how!
10 Tips To Determine “How Much Weight I Should Lift”
Now, I will provide 10 simple tips you can use to safely determine how much weight you should be lifting during your workouts.
If you apply these tips, you will gain the MAXMAL benefits from your training, and do so safely.
You will also have a better understanding of how much weight you should be lifting during your workouts.
1). Have You Established Your Training Goal?
People train for different reasons.
You may be like Jason and Leon, training for a better physique. Or you may be training for athletic performance.
The point remains- different goals require different training methodologies.
Bill Geiger from Bodybuilding.com explains how different goals should determine what training methodology you should adopt in his “How Much Should You Lift” article.
He’s an experienced gym goer, and knows what he is talking about!
Different Goals Require Different Methodologies!
If you are training for strength you should stay within 1-6 reps per set. For increasing muscle size, train with 8-12 reps per set. And for muscular endurance, perform 15+ reps per set.
A rep, or “repetition“, is simply the number of times you repeat a certain lifting exercise. And a “set” refers to performing a group of reps in a row without rest. Lifters would typically take a ~60 second rest between sets.
Therefore, establishing your training goal will give you an indication of how many reps you should be performing for a given set.
Many people train to lose fat and gain muscle, leading to a lean and athletic-looking physique. If you belong to this category, make sure you read my “How To Lose Fat And Gain Muscle” guide!
2). Don’t Underestimate The Warm Up!
Before any training session, you should always warm up. And after every session, cool down (the opposite to a warm up).
It may not be the most exhilarating part of your training, but it is vital to prevent injury and to optimise muscle performance.
A general warm up is the bare minimum before any intense exercise. Start with dynamic stretches and joint rolling exercises.
Weight lifting can be extremely stressful not just on the muscles and tendons, but also on the joints and bones.
A specific warm up can then be done to further prepare the muscles, joints, and central nervous system. You are basically letting your body know that you are about to lift weights, SO GET READY!).
Warm Up Sets
Warm up sets are a good specific warm up. But make sure you don’t tire yourself out before you have even begun your training sets!
Jay, a writer and fitness coach from A Workout Routine, provides in-depth information on warming up for weight lifting in his “Warm Up Sets” guide.
Jay recommends doing 5 warm up sets:
- Set 1 should consist of 10-15 reps of an insignificant weight (easy stuff!).
- Sets 2, 3, and 4 will incrementally decrease in rep number and increase in weight.
- Set 5 should consist of just 1 rep at a weight that is 90% of your training weight (in other words, 90% of the weight you usually lift with).
Jay’s warm up sequence is fantastic because it primes the body for training without unnecessary fatigue. Many beginner lifters make this mistake in their warm up, so avoid it at all cost!
3). Perfect Your Form And Technique!
Perfecting form and technique is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL before you even begin contemplating how much weight you should be lifting.
In fact, it should be the first thing you practice when you start your weight lifting journey.
Josh Fuher, a personal trainer from Xperience Fitness, summarises simply and effectively the importance of proper form in his “5 Reasons Why Form Is Important” article.
Don’t Injure Yourself Training!
Remember our friend Leon who injured himself by lifting too heavy a weight?
Chances are, his over-ambition led to poor form.
Rather than lifting with correct form, he chose to lift a weight he simply could not handle. Leon’s joints were put under stress, and he recruited the wrong muscles during whilst training.
Not only did Leon injure himself (which is not nice anyway), but his training routine was also disrupted. As a result, he lost all motivation to reach his goal- the beach bod.
Don’t be a Jason!
Lift More Effectively!
Not only does proper form prevent injury, but it will also increase your lifting effectiveness.
This is because you are focusing muscle activation and tension on the intended muscle group, allowing you to safely lift a heavy weight.
Ultimately, proper form will you will provide more benefits from the time you spend lifting.
Practice Form With Lighter Weights
If you are a beginner looking to master form, there are many ways to practice.
Weight machines are excellent ways to get accustomed to the movement patterns.
Once you are comfortable with using weight machines, you can move onto dumbells.
And once you have mastered good form on dumbells, you can move onto a training barbell (15Kg bar).
And practicing with a training barbell will give you the confidence to move onto a standard size olympic barbell barbell (20Kg bar)!
Therefore, using lighter weights with machines and dumbbells will allow you to master the barbell!
Learning Proper Form Does Not Require a PT!
No matter what exercise you are performing, there WILL be a tutorial online.
Online training resources are excellent ways to learn proper form and technique.
In fact, according to a recent ACSM Poll, online training ranks as the Number 1 Worldwide Fitness Trend For 2021. Personal training only rank in at Number 10!
Online Personal Training Resources
“Lifting encyclopaedias” are excellent resources to learn proper form and technique.
Check out this comprehensive exercise database by WeightTraining.Guide for an excellent step-by-step guide to all your lifting needs.
If you are performing compound lifts (bench press, overhead press, rows, squats, and deadlifts), then this compound barbell exercises guide will teach all you need to know. They cover every aspect of lifting- from basic form, to troubleshooting, improvement tips, and exercise variations.
Youtube is also an excellent resource if you prefer more virtual guidance.
But be sure the video source is from someone reputable! A good way to confirm the the quality of their advice is by looking for high view counts and positive comments.
Jeff Nippard’s channel is an amazing resource for weight lifting. He is aprofessional body builder with a biochemistry degree (he knows what he’s talking about!)
The topics he covers are in depth and suitable for beginners to experts. His video guides will be invaluable for you as you progress with your lifting.
Online training can be absolutely free if you know where to look!
Now that you have warmed up and perfected your technique, you can determine how much weight you should be lifting.
4). Choosing A Starting Weight By Trial And Error
Previously, I introduced two methods to determine the starting weight you should be lifting.
The first way is through trial and error. And this is most suitable for beginners and those training solo.
The second way is through using a 1 rep max. And this should only be done if you are an advanced lifter with an equally knowledgable training parter.
Now I will explain in detail how to use these two methods.
If you choose to go down the path of trial and error, then you should let your training goals determine your starting weight.
Training Goals Determine Your Reps And Sets
Most people train to develop lean muscle mass and lose fat.
In which case, you should aim to perform 3-5 sets per muscle group in any given session. And 8-12 reps per set. Take a 60-80 second rest between sets.
This is a common split adopted by many people, from beginner trainees to advanced lifters.
It’s a rep range and intensity that is both safe and provides all the training benefits for muscle growth.
Now ask yourself- How much weight can you lift 8-12 times at a moderate to high intensity?
What do I mean by “moderate to high intensity”?
Everyone can lift a 1 pound dumbbell 8 times. But will it provide any benefits for muscle growth?
This is why your 8-12 reps should be at a weight (intensity) that will challenge your muscles.
If your goal is to increase muscular strength or endurance, simply apply the same principle, but to the respective rep ranges (1-6 reps for muscular strength and 15+ reps for endurance).
The take home point is to choose a set/rep range that is specific to your goal, and always use a moderate to high intensity to complete your sets/reps.
You will know if you are doing this because the last few reps will be hard to squeeze out!
Start Light And Go Heavier!
Beginners will often have no idea how to choose starting weight to choose.
If this sounds like you, I would begin with a weight you know you can safely manage.
If you find the weight is too easy, you can increase the weight incrementally until you hit the “sweet spot”.
Another important factor when considering a suitable starting weight, is your training and health background.
Have you been training for a long time? If yes, then you can probably experiment safely with heavier weights.
Do you have a medical condition like osteoporosis? Then maybe begin with a lighter weight.
If you find that the starting weight you chose is too hard, or impossible to complete 8-12 reps, lower the weight until you find the sweet spot.
Remember to concentrate on proper form!
The Sweet Spot
How do you know when you have found the sweet spot?
Let’s assume you have chosen to train for a bench press. You are aiming to complete 4 sets of 8 reps.
What weight should you be lifting for each rep?
By using the trial and error method described above, you will eventually find a weight that is:
- Fairly challenging on sets 1 and 2, but manageable.
- Moderately challenging on set 3.
- Almost taking your muscle to failure by the last few reps of set 4.
This is your training weight sweet spot! And it should be determined for each and every exercise you perform.
Watch Out For This Common Pitfall!
When you are weight lifting, never compare yourself to others.
Just because the guy next to you is benching 60Kg, does not mean you should be benching 60Kg too.
Its very easy to fall into this bad habit, especially for beginners.
Instead, you should always listen to your body. If you are struggling to lift a weight and your form is bad, chances are you should go lighter!
Many (not all) people who shift heavy weights, are the Leons of the local gym.
They attempt to lift what they cant handle. The barbell is dropped rather than lowered in a controlled manner. They use body momentum to lift a weight. These are all examples of bad form.
What’s the result?
Their bad form produces negligible training returns, and even worse causes injury to themselves and others.
Remember: going lighter with good form is always better than going heavy with bad form.
5). Choosing A Starting Weight By 1 Rep Max
The second way to determine how much weight you should lift is through a one rep max. This is most suitable for advanced lifters with an equally knowledgable training partner.
Determining your 1 rep max will allow you to then calculate a 80% lifting capacity. This weight is what you should be completing during training reps.
What Is A 1 Rep Max?
A one rep max (RM) is simply the maximum amount of weight you can physically lift for one rep, for any given exercise.
To determine your 1RM, you would load up a weight that will push your muscle to the absolute limit, and have a “spotter” stand by in case you fail to shift the weight.
Remember, a standard size olympic barbell in itself will weigh 20Kg. So factor this into your 1RM.
Why Use The 1 Rep Max Method?
A one rep max is useful because, unlike the trial and error method, it will allow you to quickly calculate how much you should be lifting for training reps.
You may have heard of weight loads being expressed as “80% of 1 RM”. This simply means 80% of your one rep max. 80% of 1RM is a recommended weight to use for muscle growth.
For example: If my benchpress 1RM is 80Kg, then 80% of my training reps would be 64Kg (80 x 0.8 = 64). In other words, I would aim to complete 8-12 reps of 64Kg in each set.
Or you may have come across weight loads being described as “8 RM”. This simply refers to the weight you can lift for 8 repetitions. This is the recommended rep range for muscle growth.
A Word Of Caution!
You should only be trying a 1 RM if you have are an advanced trainee who has an equally advanced training partner, or a personal trainer.
You don’t want a 80kg+ barbell falling on your face (trust me!).
To further my point, Staci Ardison from Nerd Fitness also recommends that you should only try a 1RM when you have mastered the correct form and movement pattern for the exercise.
Not only will this minimise the risk of injury, but it will also give you a true 1RM value.
This is because perfecting your technique will also maximise muscle recruitment and activation for that exercise. When this happens, your body makes adaptations which allow you to lift heavier weights.
These adaptations include increased neural innervation (aka mind-muscle connection), increased metabolic adaptations (more efficient energy utilisation by the muscle), and increased joint strength.
6). Optimise Your Weight Load For Each Workout!
You have now determined a suitable starting weight which allows you to complete an exercise with 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps.
The weight is not so light that the exercise is too easy (thereby diminishing training benefits). Nor is it so heavy that things become dangerous.
You are off to a great start (more so than Jason and Leon anyway!).
“When you stop growing, you start stagnating. And when you start stagnating, you start dying.”Tony Robbins
Keep Challenging Your Body!
Now, you can work on the same weight indefinitely, but the benefit returns from training will quickly diminish.
This is because the body adapts. It will become accustomed to the the weight, and your muscles will stop growing.
Instead, you should optimise the amount of weight you are lifting every week.
This principle has actually been assigned a name…..
7). Progressive Overload!
So what exactly is progressive overload?
Progressive overload refers to the practice of increasing the demands put on your muscles, so that they continue to grow in strength, size, and endurance.
Why Do You Need To Overload?
Muscle tissue is composed of many muscle fibres called myofibrils. When myofibrils pull on each other, a muscle contraction occurs. This allows you to lift a weight.
The importance of overloading is clear from the stimulus-recovery-adaptation curve below.
When you challenge a muscle with a heavy weight, the muscle also becomes damaged. This is why your muscles can often feel weak after a workout.
And what happens when the muscles are damaged?
The body repairs them! And they aren’t just repaired, they also become bigger and stronger. This is your body’s way of making sure it can lift the same heavy weight next time.
This process is called adaptation. Progressive overload leads to adaptation. And adaptation leads to muscle growth!
What Happens If You Don’t Overload?
Is overloading neccessary?
The short answer is no.
However, if you don’t consistently overload your muscles, they will simply lose their adaptations. And this means the muscle will return to their original size.
Therefore, if you want continued muscle development, you will need to overload frequently.
If you are happy with your current muscle mass, then you do not need to overload!
Dhimant Indrayan, from House Of Hypertrophy, explains the mechanisms for progressive overload excellently in his article. His graphs and images are very interesting!
How to Overload Correctly?
Now you may be asking:
“How do I know when it is the right time to overload?”
The answer is to listen to your body!
When you are able to complete all your sets with good form, still have the energy to squeeze out an extra few reps, and you are confident in the movement, it is time to overload.
What is the best way to overload the muscle?
Many overload methods are possible:
- Increase weight.
- Increase reps.
- Increase sets.
- Increase training frequency.
- Decrease rest.
The most common way is to simply increase the weight. And this should be done in small increments to ensure you are still able to maintain good form.
When overloading by weight, you should do so appropriately. Consider the weight and exercise you are overloading for.
What do I mean by this?
Lets consider this example:
Overloading by 5Kg on a 100kg barbell squat and 5kg on a 10kg bicep curl.
First of all, you shouldn’t overload too much on smaller exercises which are more susceptible to joints stress.
Secondly, if you observe these numbers carefully, you will notice that adding 5Kg to the barbell squat only represents a 5% overload.
Whereas adding 5Kg to the bicep curl represents a massive 50% overload!
The “10% rule” is commonly touted. This simply teaches you overload by an extra 10% of what you are currently lifting for a particular exercise.
This is a good approximation to aim for, however, it should not be an absolute rule.
In reality, different people adapt at different rates. Different muscles also adapt at different rates.
A 10% overload can often be too much to handle for many people.
Instead, you should listen to your body and overload with a weight that is suitbale for you and allows you maintain proper form.
As long, as you are overloading, then you are progressing!
8). How Much Should I Lift For My Weight? (Relative Strength)
“How much should I be able to lift?”Many Lifters Across The World
Now that you have determined your starting weight, how much SHOULD you be able to lift with progressive training?
It’s actually a very good question. After all, everyone should have number to compare their progress to right?
In fact, most people who ask this question are actually seeking a benchmark to track their improvements and ensure they are on track.
To answer this question, Caliber Strong explains a term called relative strength. This refers to the amount of weight you can lift in 5 core exercises, relative to your body weight.
The 5 core exercises are:
- Barbell bench press.
- Overhead press.
- Pull-up (or row).
- Barbell squat.
- Barbell Dead lift.
If you are new to the 5 core lifts, make sure you check out my “5 Amazing Compound Exercises” tutorial!
For beginner lifters, you should aim to reach the following benchmarks within 6-12 months of comitted training:
These figures are for a one rep max.
For example: I am 70Kg, so I would aim to push 63Kg on my bench press (70 x 0.9 = 63) for a single rep within 6-12 months.
Of course, as with the main theme of this post, these are just approximations.
In reality, everyone is different. And everyone will be stronger at certain exercises than others.
Someone who is overweight or has a lot of total muscle mass will naturally find a pull up to be harder than a bench press. Similarly taller individuals will often be able to shift a higher dead lift.
Therefore use these benchmarks for what they are…..BENCHMARKS!
If you are an intermediate or advanced lifter, check out Caliber Strong’s post for your benchmarks!
9). Are You Keeping Training Records?
How much were you bench pressing last week?
What about your squat?
And how difficult was it to complete these exercises?
If you want to know how much you should be lifting, these are the kind things you should track.
My point is to keep some form of training journal. This will let you know how much you should be lifting in your next workout.
For example: if you were aiming to complete 4 sets of squats, but you only managed to complete 2 sets before your form suffered, then you should consider decreasing the weight.
Here is a list of parameters you should be tracking on a weekly, basis:
- Weight lifted.
- How many sets did you complete from your target set range?
- How many reps did you complete from your target rep range?.
- Form (take videos!)
- How you felt on the last reps (was it easy or difficult?).
This will allow you to appropriately optimise the weight you are lifting every workout.
With time, you will be able to memorise the answers to these questions, and automatically apply adjustments to your next workout.
Until then, keep a journal!
10). Realise When You Are Lifting Too Heavy!
Earlier, I focused on form being the main indicator that you are lifting to heavy.
Now I will cover the other indications that you should decrease the weight you are lifting.
These are all symptoms that you are lifting too heavy a weight:
- Bad form (you should know this by now!)
- Muscle soreness that lasts over 3 days or is affecting your life (soreness can be normal and a good sign that you pushed yourself, but not if it persists for over 3 days).
- Joint pain (this is a clear indicator that you should decrease the weight!).
- Unfinished sets (missing a few reps is ok, but if you are missing an entire set, then decrease the weight!)
- Lethargic and no motivation (this can be a sign of overtraining)
- Drop in performance levels (another sign of overtraining).
That’s the list complete!
Today, i have given you 10 of the important tips you need to answer the question- “how much weight should I lift?”.
You have learnt the importance of good form, how to pick the ideal starting weight for any exercise, how to progress from your starting weight, and what benchmarks to use to track progress.
But the most important take-home point is that every one is different. All your muscles are different too. This is why you need to apply these tips to find the optimum weight for YOU and the exercises YOU do!
Have you tried the trial and error or one rep max methods yet? How did it go for you?
I would like to know how you progress! So please drop me a comment below!
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Thanks for reading guys!